Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we continue our conversation with Lauren K. Thompson about her new book Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War, published by the University of Nebraska Press in August 2020.
It is incredible how much soldiers interacted, you mentioned in the book that it was illegal and that some soldiers were brought up on charges. Here is the part that got me, why would the soldiers write about this home, why would you write something that incriminating? Or they kept the items exchanged, again, why would you keep evidence like that around?
LKT: Great question! Yes, I thought about this, too. It makes me wonder if some soldiers were afraid to write about these interactions and if the frequency of fraternization was even higher than what the written record indicates. However, because most mail was not censored, unlike what we would see in wars that followed, men were pretty candid in their letters home. We see them bash their officers and criticize politicians. They reveal their locations, movements, and suspected campaign objectives. Men “told it as the saw it” and those narratives included fraternization. I even read a few soldier accounts where they included the paper, letter, or note they received while fraternizing in the actual letters home! For example, John L. Smith of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry mailed his mother the newspaper he received from a confederate. In his next letter home, he asked her if she received it. Unfortunately, those pieces didn’t make it into the archival collection, darn. But, honestly, the fact that soldiers were not afraid to disclose their participation or observations of these interactions made this project possible. Without their written testimony, we would have to rely solely on the officer orders against fraternization or soldiers’ recollections in their memoirs.
Speaking of officers’ orders, that is a critically important angle. The high command’s efforts to control fraternization validated its rate of recurrence. Generals Hooker, Lee, Meade, and Grant passed orders against contact and exchanges with the enemy. Their subordinates implemented these orders with regimental commanders who would then institute inspections for men coming back from picket duty. Men would thus smoke or drink the coffee quickly; or, conceal it as best they could. I think men wanted to keep these as a token of their independence. As we know soldiering was extremely demanding on men’s bodies, minds, and emotions. Their letters emanate anxieties of the future particularly because they had very little power to control it. When humans are trapped in a very controlled situation, we often seek ways to “get one up” on the power structure through small actions of deceit and dissent (even if its subconsciously). However, we must proceed carefully and not overgeneralize. An in-depth analysis of soldier fraternization demonstrates a critical nuance. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courage v. cowardice, loyal v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers – men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read more about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards – in fact, many of them went on to lead their regiments and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end. I believe that fraternization provided men in the ranks with the space to occasionally test restrictions and use their environment to fight the war on their own terms. So, to circle back to your original question – I feel that men were quick to share the details in letters and held onto these items as tangible tokens because both exemplified their notion of choice in a seemingly uncontrollable situation.
However, as men pushed back against inspections by hiding objects and papers, the high command pushed back, too. Officers would “spy” on the picket lines or appoint “officers of the day” to observe actions on the front lines. Usually, these men were seeking a promotion themselves, so they were ready to essentially snitch on their comrades who fraternized. Regimental commanders and “officers of the day” would report back to the high command and men would be charged and brought to a Court Martial. Soldiers would be charged in violation of the 56th and/or 57th Articles of War. The 56th was “relieving the enemy with victuals” and the 57th was “holding correspondence with and giving intelligence to the enemy.” About half of the Union Court Martial cases regarded the exchange of newspapers. Most of the men were caught in the act and if the Union soldier had a Richmond Examiner on him, the officers had hard evidence. Even then, the Court Martials often turned into a “he said” versus “he said” situation. The accused would claim that “he did not know it was against orders because everyone was doing it” or “an officer asked him to exchange the papers.” Sometimes, the ruling would favor the highest-ranking officer, whereas other times, the accused was acquitted. The harshest punishment for fraternization was “two months hard labor and six months without pay.” Most of the penalties were forfeiture of pay for two-three months or some form of public embarrassment in front of the regiment (obviously, to deter other men from fraternizing). Unfortunately, I could not determine the “success rate” of getting away with fraternization. But, if I found 150 soldiers who did fraternize and there were only about two dozen Court Martial cases involving fraternization (out of several thousand cases during the war), I think deduce that most soldiers got away with it and that’s why it continued to take place. This is particularly the case once soldiers developed ceasefires. If officers kept themselves out of harm’s way and ordered the men to fight it out on the front, they would not be able to police soldiers’ verbal agreements to stop firing or fire blank shots. Now, the flip side of my conclusion is that perhaps the high command did not care enough to spend time and resources on this matter. Obviously, cases of mutiny, disorderly conduct, and desertion took precedence as they were the most extreme. So yes, maybe men held onto these items simply because fraternization was a secondary concern and they had a small possibility of being caught. But, at the hottest spots for fraternization – the Rappahannock, Vicksburg, Atlanta, Petersburg – the high command passed those orders. Men started doing it, officers tried to stop it, and then men adjusted their practices to be more creative and covert. I think they liked the benefits it provided and for most of the men who decided to fraternize, the risk was worth the reward.
I am glad you mention Vicksburg and Petersburg already as places of fraternization. In part it feels surprising and in other ways it does not that soldiers in siege situations would interact. However, it does seem counterproductive for a soldier to interact, even give food and other supplies to a besieged enemy. The goal of a siege is to starve out your enemy, this seems . . . well I let you respond.
LKT: It seems totally counterproductive. That is because we tend to look at what a soldier is giving his enemy rather than what he is getting in return. We also have advantage of hindsight. We know the strategy and the outcome of these campaigns. Are our guys aware of how many more days they have to fight before they surrender – or are they just trying to make it through the day? Although these two sieges have some inherent similarities (including Grant!), I will address them separately as they are different armies and take place in amidst different contexts.
Beginning with Vicksburg, the main types of fraternization I found were the trade of coffee and tobacco during burial detail and ceasefires, or the attempt to limit fire. The trade of coffee and tobacco was a relatively equal exchange. They both served the same purpose – energy and comfort. So, these trades did not benefit one party more than the other. After those burial truces in mid-May and another one on June 29, there was very few occasions of trade. As Grant’s army pushed closer, the men did not have the ability to meet in between the lines nor transport goods across the lines, like they did on rivers. But they did use their voices to call out to one another. Those verbal agreements allowed men to let their guard down. Were men in the Army of the Tennessee giving amnesty to Pemberton’s men? On the surface, this appears to be the case. Were these ceasefires counterproductive to their objective of applying constant pressure to the enemy? Yes. But, I really think these actions were less about a soldier’s enemy and more about, and for, himself. This is one of the major arguments in the book. Remember, these men are individualistic and want to survive. Any chance a soldier could take to limit a threat to his life, he took it. For example, if it was my turn in the front and for three of the eighteen hours, we didn’t have to worry about bullets whizzing through our lines – that increased my chances to live and fight another day. Would his participation in ceasefires slow the pace of combat prolong the war? Probably. However, we cannot assume men were always thinking long term and we definitely have to remember they did not know the outcome of the campaign. Making it through the day was what they tried to control, and fraternization helped them do just that.
At Petersburg, we see this to an even greater extent and on a much larger scale. Vicksburg was six weeks; Petersburg was ten months. The objective at Vicksburg was the city itself. I think we can agree the objective at Petersburg was the Army of Northern Virginia. One of the methods Union soldiers employed to achieve this goal was through fraternization! Northern men used food to lure confederate deserters. They would meet in between the lines, give food to the starving Confederates, and essentially say “there is plenty more where that came from if you come with me.” In fact, General Grant even had men on the picket lines post “flyers” that guaranteed southern deserters rations, a pardon, and transportation to any place in the Union. In this case, northern men used what they had and what they knew their enemy needed. It slowly worked. These instances highlight a very productive example of fraternization (for Union armies, of course). Otherwise, if men traded food, newspapers, commodities, etc. there was always an equal exchange. Again, thinking about men as individuals trying to survive, they rarely gave things to their enemy without something in return. If they could get information or goods, great – who cares if they gave something to the enemy. Their orders, duty, ideology, unit, comrades, country, etc. are all critically important factors that drive these men. But so is their pragmatism. Is this exceptional to American men? In some ways possibly, in other ways, it may just be the way we are wired biologically as humans. That sounds like an important comparative project needing to be investigated! I digress, back to fraternization. The factor of self-preservation is also why we see ceasefires happen even more frequently at Petersburg. I found a handful of accounts at Vicksburg, but dozens of accounts during the last year of the war in Virginia. In stopping their fire, men were helping their enemy for certain. But if we shift our attention from the bird’s eye view and to the individual soldier, we start to realize that his actions represent his individualism. In other words, “live and let live” specifically meant “if I can live, then I’ll let you live too.”
That is a really interesting and almost alien attitude when you think of modern wars. Before shifting to a bit more challenging subject, I have to ask: On page 76, you share a store of a horse being traded on picket duty—if this trade was illicit, how do you trade a horse and keep it secret?
LKT: A secondary title I used while working on the book, for my own purposes, was “boys will be boys.” After reading so many of their letters and diaries, a lot of what soldiers said and did really reminded me of my college students. Some of my male students try to bargain for extra credit, extensions on assignments, and consistently attempt to entertain me with adolescent male banter. I know they are always trying to “get one over” on me and trick me. Most of it is in good fun (unless they plagiarize, of course). We see soldiers do the same when it came to authority. Men tested restrictions to see how much freedom they had and what they could get away with. The swap of horses between two calvary men is a perfect example of this cultural ritual. My answer to your question, in the simplest of terms, is that soldiers found it “cool,” funny, deceitful, and maybe even a little bit thrilling. They could go back to their camp with a good laugh knowing they have a “Yank” or a “Reb’s” horse. Since they also swapped the saddles and gear, their respective sides would not know the difference between the Union and Confederate horse.
I do caution readers against chalking all fraternization up to humor and deviousness, however. As we discussed throughout this conversation, sometimes men fraternized out of boredom and curiosity. I would classify the horse trade in that category along with shouts & jokes across the lines, the exchange of trinkets, etc. These were almost like “gateway meetings” that established trust and led to more serious, significant, and potentially lifesaving types of fraternization. When soldiers sought commodities, information, and safety it was less about humor and fun, but more about survival. I had to work through these nuances and be mindful in avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” approach to this topic. Fraternization is quite complicated!